Just as it is poor judgment to assume that someone who is thin doesn’t need to exercise, it’s also misleading to assume that those who are overweight don’t exercise or eat healthy.

The latter point was one that was especially stressed at a press conference organized by the Paso del Norte Institute for Healthy Living (IHL) on Aug. 3.

“What we’ve learned about obesity is that it’s pretty simple…It’s about how many calories someone takes in, meaning the food and beverages they consume, and how many calories they put out,” said Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Weight Center who graduated from Harvard Medical School. “What I’m here to tell you is, this is wrong, because if it were really this simple, I would not have had to spend four years in internal medicine and pediatric residency and another three years doing an obesity medicine fellowship to treat patients who struggle with weight and weight regulation.”

I learned about the press conference the day before it happened, and while at first I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make it, something inside me stressed the importance of making it work. Many people who are near and dear to my heart have struggled their whole lives with weight loss. I’d see some of these loved ones go to the gym every day and eat as healthy as they could, yet despite all the hard work and will power, it wasn’t evident to them in the scales.

My question would always be, “But how do you feel altogether? Do you feel happier and more energized?” My hope was that the importance was not placed on numbers, but on their overall well-being. I learned last Wednesday that this is the same intention of IHL.

But what they also wanted the media there for was to learn about a study that reveals that there is a negative bias towards those with obesity. A survey with more than 5,000 respondents found that when it comes to jobs, 41% of English-speaking residents in this region expressed a reluctance to interview people with obesity for jobs. Spanish-speaking residents totaled at 17% in the same survey.

“When I weighed a hundred pounds more, I was a staff nurse,” said Michele Collins, a certified bariatric nurse at the Sierra Providence Surgical Weight-Loss Program. “I was overlooked, overlooked, overlooked. Well, for some reason when I lost a hundred pounds, it was like, ‘Oh, would you like to be a director?’ I wanted to be a director all along. They didn’t want me to be a director. And I’m not bashing them … but I was overlooked.”

Obesity Action Coalition member Ted Kyle said that what contributes to this mindset is that we too often assume that those who have obesity are solely responsible for their disease. While diet and exercise can factor into the weight equation, those factors aren’t enough to assume that people who are overweight don’t live healthy lifestyles.

IHL reported that there are over 90 different potential causes for obesity, and some of these factors include viral infections (such as the human adenovirus 36), endocrine disrupting chemicals and side effects from medications.

“We think about 10% of all weight struggles in this country are secondary to medications that we prescribe for different issues,” Dr. Stanford said. “Anti-psychotic medications, anti-depressant medications, medications that affect sleep – all of these are often weight-promoting drugs.”

Another interesting factor to me listed in an educational packet IHL provided us was that, “our bodies are designed to actively resist large amounts of weight loss through biological mechanisms that make long-term weight loss challenging.” So as hard as some people try to lose a significant amount of weight, their bodies don’t always allow them to make such big changes.

So what can we do as advocates to help put an end to the discrimination that those with obesity face? To help change the way we view the disease, it often starts in our language.

“We always want to look at the disease as not having them, but they have the disease; instead of saying an obese woman, you would say a woman with obesity,” Dr. Stanford said. “It’s a ‘people first’ language. It takes away the stigma.”

We can also help by joining the Obesity Action Coalition to help people become more aware on the complexity of obesity.

And sometimes, part of the solution can be as simple as a small act of kindness.

“The next time you’re out, if you see someone who’s overweight, smile at them,” Collins said. “Say hello, and maybe you’ll make their day. Maybe they’re having a really horrible day and maybe they’re feeling bad about themselves, and if you reach out, that’s going to make a difference.”

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